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Here’s something I wrote about games as art, eons ago, when somebody on the Internet made me all mad. Someday I may finish it, and update its bunch of busted links, but for now I offer it up in rough form, in honor of the Art History of Games (#AHoG), happening this week here in Atlanta. Please consider this a work in progress.

Who said games can’t be art?

Famously, Roger Ebert did. Back in 2007, in a response to comments decrying his earlier opinion that video games are not art, Ebert wrote, “Games may not be Shakespeare quite yet, but I have the prejudice that they never will be, and some gamers are prejudiced that they will.”

Last week, film critic Devin Faraci of published an editorial adding his arguments to the ongoing debate. Faraci’s editorial came after his comments in a news item on a possible Shadow of the Colossus film triggered a debate (on Twitter) about whether or not video games are an art form. Faraci says video games aren’t art, and the Internet is full of people who disagree with him.

I disagree with him, too, but I was more interested in understanding his argument. Aside from Ebert’s opinion, I’d never read a serious argument for why video games shouldn’t be considered art. Ebert’s argument is concerned with both form and quality—he says games do things art shouldn’t and that they aren’t much good, besides. Faraci’s argument is completely categorical—he says games are not an art form because they do not do what he says art does.

Chuck Wendig, who’s both a brilliant writer and a clever game designer, wrote his response to Faraci’s editorial right away, but I’m not completely on board with it. Chuck’s written a host of short stories (one was even published at CHUD, I think) and designed Hunter: The Vigil, so you know he has some experience with games and the arts. But in his response Chuck merely disagrees with Faraci and Ebert.

Here, I’m going to make my case for why some games are art.

The Arguments Against

If we pull back, we can make out to three main arguments about games as art:

1. Games are not “high art” because they have not yet produced an important work.

2. Games cannot be art because they do things art shouldn’t do.

3. Games cannot be art because they do not do what art does.

In all honesty, I think Ebert’s argument might be a dare. If so, he wouldn’t be alone. Designers throughout the video-game industry, like Warren Spector (Toon, Deus Ex) and Tony Huynh (Fracture), have been trying for years to provoke the first Shakespeare-quality classic out of the form. Warren Spector wrote:

We’re the only medium that says to itself, “This is what you must be and all you will ever be.”

That kind of thinking makes me mad. What about other words, other values? What about “challenge”? What about “compelling”? What about “discomfort”? What about “enlightening” and “thought-provoking”? [via The Escapist]

Building on Spector’s argument, Huynh wrote:

It heartens me that the video game industry has come so far and so fast on the technology front, but we cannot neglect our responsibility to our audience to move them to think. We cannot simply dismiss Roger Ebert’s criticism, but instead we need to take it as a challenge and use our medium to make our audience more “cultured, civilized and empathetic”.

We’ll ignore, for now, that Shakespeare and Dickens both wrote for money and both produced works that weren’t considered consensus classics when they debuted. I don’t know if Bioshock will be Hamlet in fifteen years, but neither do you. The point is to keep moving forward.

Faraci’s argument is broken up throughout his editorial, shown to us on a kind of mock walkthrough in which he tells us, the reader, what we think and, then, how we are wrong. In this weekend’s letters column, though, he reduces his argument to something more quotable: “Games are either not art because they are games or they [are] art but not really games. That’s my argument.”

In other words, games are not art because he said games and art are different.

What Is Art?

Ebert’s argument, often quoted since he wrote it in 2005, is that game’s have an inherent flaw:

“There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. […]

But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”

Ebert: “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” Later: “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Then: “the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?”

My dictionary’s definition of the “arts” includes languages and history, as does Wikipedia, which also includes invention as an art form.

From Faraci’s editorial:

“Let’s say it’s something purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling. That’s really broad, probably broader than I actually feel comfortable with, but it’ll do for the purposes of this piece. It’s also value neutral, which is very important. The thing doesn’t have to be created or presented well in order to be art, just purposefully.”

In What Is Art?, Leo Tolstoy gives us this:

The business of art lies just in this,—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of the truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it.

Okay, then.

Ayn Rand (since Devin mentioned Bioshock), in her essay “Art and Cognition,” wrote:

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.

We all have our biases. Faraci says he needs to deny games art status because I need art to retain meaning and not just be ‘stuff I like.'”

Almost nothing that comes into contact with humans stays one thing for long.

If we’re chasing definitions, we’ve got to consider these complications:

  • Shifting Boundaries. Over time, the line between art and craft shifts around. A handmade chair from Colonial Virginia, built just for sitting, becomes art by surviving beyond its era. It drifts from the farmhouse to the museum, from an example of craftsmanship to an artifact of period style, from one category to another, as it soaks up meaning and associations over the years.
  • Porous Boundaries. If the music in the game is art and the painted textures are art, but the game mechanics aren’t, then the finished work, taken as a whole, as the artists intended, must straddle some borders.  The character skins and environmental textures are over there with the Paintings while the orchestral score goes over there in the Music section. Individual works must be able to lay across multiple categories, which means the borders between categories aren’t solid.
  • Resolution. What’s the resolving power of the instrument we’re using to measure works and assign them to categories? How high-res is our image? How many categories are we allowed — how many different arts are there? Ten? Five? Are sonnets and novels in the same category? Movie reviews and haikus?

What value do we get from lumping these things together rather than distinguishing between them?

Re: Intent (Ronald D. Moore wrote about the Battlestar Galactica finale: “The image of the bird was just [that] — an image. […] I still don’t know exactly what it meant. I don’t want to.”)

The only detailed and thorough definition of art I can fathom would be a list of all the works I consider art — that the list would be almost worthless to you and is not forthcoming is part of the point.

Maybe video games are different. They are, after all, interactive. But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.

What Are Games?

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein asks us to define games:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. […] Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing?’ Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players?

What is game design? The Game Developer’s Choice Awards describe their award for Best Game Design as “including, but not limited to, gameplay mechanics, playability, play balancing, and level design.”

Reiner Knizia says, “In America, the theme is seen as the game whereas in [Europe] the game mechanics and the game system are seen as the game.”

(And, uh, by the way, some people do consider examples of actual chess-playing to be art. On this, Kasparov and Marcel Duchamp agree. Think of it as an improvised dance between competing partners, maybe.)

I asked Devin, A game cannot be ‘something purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling?'” Devin’s answer: “no.”

“If it continues stagnating in content, then no it will never be considered as high an art-form as film or music. But I think people are starting to recognize that games can do a whole lot more. And again, we come back to the mechanic-is-the-message. There has to be ways that the gameplay mirrors the message; that it’s not just set in some cool setting, but actually has some gameplay that has an impact on how the player thinks about a particular issue in a meaningful way,” Seggerman stated. [“How Games Can Change Your Life”]

Faraci asked, “Further, is there a narrative game that uses no editing at all — no flashbacks, no cut scenes, no load screens that divide areas, nothing?”

First, this: Games can be art. I am unclear what jurisdiction Ebert and Faraci have to revoke (it’s too late to deny) art-hood from games, but there I have exerted equal power over the medium of games, this time in their favor. As some couples are married in some states and not in others, some games are art in some places and not others.

Finally, maybe most importantly, there’s this: In improv we are instructed to avoid the word “No.” Saying “no” shuts down the show, puts drag on the play, and obstructs new ideas. Pre-categorizing any work, whether it’s a painting or a film or a game, is a kind of “No.” It denies the new work. More to the point, it almost never works. How much new art is created out of the impulse to say, “Oh, yeah? What about this?” How much new art is created out of a desire to bust categories and test boundaries?

No border lasts. Nations fold, coastlines fatten, rivers dry, rockets defy gravity’s definitions. I don’t know if Laika’s an art object, but we get more art from leaving the question open, and closing it won’t work anyway.